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Raising respectful kids
Reclaiming Children and Youth
Authors: Martin Brokenleg
Authors: Steve Van Bockern
Authors: Larry Brendtro
Start Page: 2
Copyright PRO-ED Journals Spring 1999
Editors' Note: This is the third in a series of four special issues on
the principles of the Circle of Courage. This model is based on Native
American and cross-cultural research that indicates that underlying positive
development are four universal needs: belonging, mastery, independence,
and generosity. Lakota artist George Blue Bird has illustrated these four
needs in the cover art for this series and in the accompanying "four-directions
medicine wheel." This issue highlights effective practices for helping
youth move from rebellion to responsibility.
Autonomous children and youth are responsibly independent. In modern cultures,
however, large numbers of youth are undisciplined and irresponsible. Some
seem powerless to control their lives and display patterns of learned
Others seek false power by bullying peers and fighting against authority.
The authors contend that adults in modern society will be able to raise
responsible children only by rediscovering long-understood truths about
the deep respect that must exist between elders and youth.
Ours is a culture which systematically deprives children of opportunities
for showing responsibility, and then complains about their irresponsibility.
A responsible child or youth has developed the inner power of independence-the
third component of the Circle of Courage. This is not just self-sufficiency,
but rather the responsibility to engage in actions to make one's life a
success. Parents and teachers who respect children will carefully discipline
them by providing opportunities for taking responsibility for decisions.
Teens who have been disciplined respectfully display the confidence that
comes from a growing maturity. By the time they reach adulthood, such persons
have a personal power that is tempered by graciousness. They demonstrate
a deep respect for themselves, for others, and for all creation.
The Problem of Disrespect
Children are not born with inherent responsibility; they must learn it
from persons with greater maturity and wisdom. Unfortunately, U.S. culture
today is one in which adults and youth are blatantly disrespectful-and
even worse-toward one another. In a typical year in the United States,
3 million adults are investigated for abusing their children, and 3 million
youth are arrested for breaking the law. We have created a "culture of
disrespect." Disrespect toward children is so commonplace we seldom question
A young, upwardly mobile couple can be easily recognized by their clothing
and trendy haircuts. Between them walks their child, who is 4 or 5 years
old. As they walk down the mall hallway, it is clear the child is tired
and bored with all the shopping. Watching the parents is educational. The
mother sometimes speaks to the child but just as often jerks on the lagging
child's arm. At other times, she may direct the child's movement by pulling
on an arm. It is obvious that the mother does not take the child's interests
seriously. When the child wants to look in a shop window longer, the mother
jerks him away. The child's requests to "look over there" are ignored or
One wonders if the mother uses these kinds of pulling and shoving with
her work colleagues. If not, why does she use them on her own child? Is
it because this child is hers, as though he or she is some kind of property
or possession? Perhaps the father is also disrespectful:
Farther down the mall, the father stoops down so his face is inches from
his child's. In a too loud voice, the father shocks the child: "If you
don't stop that whining, I'll give you something to cry about!" The father's
face is contorted with anger.
Does the man regularly use that tone of voice with his coworkers and friends?
And if he does not, why does he use it with his own child? Perhaps the
father's attitude is somewhat like the following: "This is only a child-not
a human being and certainly not an adult or a real person! It isn't as
though he or she has feelings or memory."
[IMAGE CHART] Captioned as: The Circle of Courage
This may seem outlandish, but it is not. The same kind of scene happens
daily all across society, and what it shows is an inherited cultural devaluation
of children, a devaluation that is such a part of Western society we don't
even notice it. It is part of a deeply embedded value-or our "cultural
tail"-that we drag behind us, a thousand years long.
Cultures of Respect
It would be a major mistake to assume that a culture that is advanced in
one area would necessarily be advanced in other areas. An example of this
dynamic is the Aborigines of Australia. To function socially, Aborigines
must know more than 500 kinship terms, which shows the social development
and complexity of Aboriginal society. Their technological level, on the
other hand, could be considered to be "Stone Age." By contrast, the United
States has an advanced technological culture but-I believe-lags in spiritual
For example, the Lakota (Sioux) language has many more words for spiritual,
emotional, and intellectual states than does English. Lakota society requires
a more advanced social intelligence than does U.S. society. Traditional
Native American culture placed a high value on individual freedom. In contrast
to obedience models of discipline, the goal was to build respect by teaching
inner discipline. Children were encouraged to make decisions, solve problems,
and show personal responsibility. In turn, adults shared stories, modeled
values, and provided guidance if children erred. In this environment, children
learned to make responsible choices without coercion.
This pattern of mutual respect permeated Native cultures. Children and
elders held each other in awe. In the Lakota language, children are "sacred
beings." The term "old man," which is often used pejoratively in English,
is rendered in Lakota as "real man." Women also had power. For example,
in many tribes, the grandmothers decided who was worthy of becoming a chief.
Their selection depended on how a boy had treated others as he was growing
up, because the worst possible leader would be one who might try to impose
his will on others. Chiefs would never ask others to do what they would
not do themselves.
Respect and Power
To Europeans, respect was based on power. Thus, principles of leadership
among social equals were strange ideas to status-conscious European colonists.
It was in the encounter between the European and Native civilizations that
democracy was born. With the advent of democracy, old systems of education
inevitably were challenged. In the early 19th century, the leading U.S.
reformer of education was Horace Mann, who declared that democracy would
revolutionize the way adults exercised their power in dealing with children.
Schooling in a democracy would be an "apprenticeship in responsibility."
Similar themes were expounded by progressive educators and youth workers
In 1911, Janusz Korczak established an orphanage for Polish street children
where discipline was based on student self-governance. He predicted that
"fifty years from now, every school in a democracy will have student
These pioneers underestimated the difficulty of changing behavior and thought.
Korczak, for example, noted that although the world was finally recognizing
and trying to eliminate oppression of racial groups, women, and the poor,
children remained "underdogs." "Don't call them future citizens," he said.
"They are citizens in embryo."
Blueprint for a Disrespectful School
Even adults who don't want to be dictators get drawn into coercive roles.
We need to move beyond philosophical considerations about respect and disrespect
and use sound principles to reshape practice. What follows are some common
attitudes and strategies rooted in adult fear of losing control of young
people. We have heard these kinds of statements in many schools:
Let's impose a system-wide discipline policy so kids know who really runs
this place. If they need to feel some power, we can give them a token student
government game to play so they won't challenge our control of really important
issues. We should make examples of troublemakers by announcing detention
lists on the intercom. We have zero tolerance for any violence, so we need
to come down hard on any bullies and let them know who is boss.
We need to keep students on task and following the prescribed curriculum.
Some just want to get into discussions about current events and dodge real
learning. Teachers should pace the room like panthers to let students know
they won't get away with anything. Keep students at their desks and quiet.
We need to post rules and get more bite for the consequences. If anybody
violates rules, put his or her name on the board. We need surprise locker
searches, and maybe we should have those "drug dogs" come in and sniff
We can use computers to schedule students, because they probably just want
to choose classes with their friends. The only teachers they will remember
years later are those who don't take any crap. We should prescribe the
curriculum because they are too immature to decide what they need. I think
it's time for another of those assertive discipline seminars; I felt so
good after the last one, being reassured that this was my class and I rule
Travis is a thoughtful high school student in our city. He summed up his
view of school in these terms: "All through school, kids are herded around
like sheep and are left with almost nothing to decide upon." Some kids
accept this role. Some fight back through passive aggression-by shutting
down and refusing to learn. Others-like the young man described in the
next section-refuse to be a "sheep" and decide to bite the shepherd.
Kids Who Fight Us
Even when strong-willed kids are deprived of power, they will find ways
of getting it. Such was the case with Theo, an African American boy reared
in a hotbed of disrespect. Abused as a child, he entered school with the
mind-set that people had always been messing with him and that he was going
to fight back. When Theo entered an all-White school, he encountered additional
problems with his peers. Recalling first grade, he said, "I told the teacher
to make the kids quit making fun of my skin and calling me niggarish."
By 11, he was thin-skinned as well, anticipating rejection everywhere.
He kept a short bat in his book bag in case he was "dissed" by the other
kids. He and his middle school teachers had little respect for each other,
as shown in this report from his school files:
I confronted Theo and asked him why he wasn't participating in his group
and why he wasn't doing the assigned activity. He responded that his group
didn't want him to. I said that wasn't true and it didn't matter if they
did or not. He should participate. Later, he stood up and confronted another
student by saying, "Are you gonna make me?" I stepped in and said, "Yes,
I am going to make you sit down." I told him that he wasn't going to start
anything in my class. He said he'd do anything he pleased; he didn't need
us or this class. Theo got angrier and angrier while I tried to get him
to sit down.
Theo then erupted and told me, "F- you!" I then grabbed him to sit him
down. He in turn pushed me and put his fists up and wanted to fight. He
said that no one "f-en" touches me and started calling me out to fight.
He said he would kick my ass and wanted to go. I told him to get into my
office. He kept refusing and swearing at me and asking me to fight.
Beginning to get very upset, I grabbed for him to push him into my office.
He again pushed me away and said not to touch him and continued to try
to get me to fight. He slowly made his way to my office, where I told him
to sit down. Theo continued to yell and swear at me and kept trying to
get me to fight. At this time, he said he was going to get a gun and shoot
me! He promised that he would get me somehow, some way.
Finally he sat down. I called Mr. S. to come and take him away. Theo was
still yelling and swearing at me while I was on the phone. When Mr. S.
arrived, I told him the story, and I also told him I didn't want Theo back
in my class. At this time, Mr. S. took Theo and left. From the time Theo
said, "F- you!" until Mr. S. arrived in my class, he continued to yell
at me, swear extensively (especially f-), and ask me to fight because he
was going to kick my ass.
Disrespect is a perversion of power. Adults who are disrespectful abuse
and belittle children. When these kids get big enough to fight back, they
battle authority and bully peers. This draws more adult retaliation, and
the conflict cycle is joined. Nobody wins.
In many tribal cultures, it is a custom to tell a story that embodies every
central truth. At the end of the story, the adult seldom announces the
moral, for this would impose his or her view on the listener. The same
idea can be applied to independence. To really understand it, each of us
needs to find our own meaning. Ponder the following four stories as you
begin thinking about how we can best develop independence, autonomy, and
respect in our children and ourselves.
The Power of Consensus
In the Western tradition, power is a zero-sum game: I win-you lose. Only
cultures rooted in respect can ensure autonomy for all. Thus, the power
of true independence happens best in the context of community. To make
any important decisions, Lakota people use a consensus process. Virtually
all North American Native people believe that this format allows each person's
power and responsibility to be employed. Time undoubtedly would be saved
by using majority rule, but the cost would be the loss of power of those
in the minority. The unresolved conflict created by majority rule is also
When Noah Brokenleg was 89 and lay gravely ill due to a stroke, his children
and grandchildren gathered around. [First Author's Note: Fortunately our
hospitals have learned to redefine "immediate family" to accommodate tribal
kinship systems.] Noah had often instructed his family that he did not
want heroic measures taken if it became clear he would not recover. Although
the family members had told the medical staff their wishes, on entering
his room one morning they found a number of life-lengthening devices hooked
to their grandfather. The family head asked the 25 to 30 Lakota people
standing in the room if they remembered the grandfather's wishes. He then
asked if everyone agreed that the additional tubes should be removed. (One
person-even if it was the youngest-was powerful enough to stop the decision
by not agreeing with it. Consensus doesn't mean liking the decision; it
means only that one agrees to go along with the decision.) In the case
of this Lakota grandfather, his wishes were kept and he lived his final
days and nights without mechanical life support, surrounded by his relatives.
The Power of a Child
In obedience cultures, respect is owed to those in authority. Youth pioneers
like Maria Montessori and Janusz Korczak spent a lifetime trying to create
schools and institutions where respect was not "age graded." An example
of an institution going against the obedience culture is Irving Alternative
School in Sioux Falls, which was built on a philosophy of respecting children
and using conflict resolution and mediation training. For example, one
morning a first grader who was on hall duty was responsible for safety
and smooth operation in the hallway. In all the commotion before class
began, a sixth grader set a stack of books in the middle of the hallway
while he put his coat in his locker. The first grader approached him but
with a bit of hesitancy.
FIRsT GRADER: "You can't leave books in the way like that."
SIXTH GRADER: "Why not?"
FIRST GRADER: "Someone could trip over them."
SIXTH GRADER: "Well, what if I put them over here by my locker?"
FIRST GRADER: "They'll be out of the way, and no one would trip then. I'll
help you move them."
The Power to Solve Problems
Canadian television once did a report on Immaculate Heart of Mary and St.
Luke's School, an elementary school in Toronto. We cannot recall the principal's
name, so we will use "Sister Mary Elizabeth" for the purposes of this story.
The children had complained that they were not getting lunch recess on
some days. Having just read a book on total quality management, Sister
Mary Elizabeth told the children they would have to figure out what the
problem was and suggest a solution to her. The students organized a committee
and set a schedule for lunchroom monitors. They reported that the problem
was on hot dog day, when it took a long time for all the students to squeeze
the catsup and mustard at the condiments table. The students suggested
that squeeze bottles be set on every table in the lunchroom. The principal
informed them that there was no money available for that kind of purchase.
According to the television report, the students raised the funds and now
had condiment squeeze bottles on every table. The reporter asked a 10-year-old
if this had taken care of all the problems at Immaculate Heart of Mary
and St. Luke's School. He replied, "I don't know about that, but I know
if I've got a problem I can fix it."
Respect for the Disrespectful
The Nisgaa' nation from the north coast of British Columbia have restored
a ceremony for young people who commit serious offenses in the community.
An offender will be taken to a deserted island and left with a tent and
food and water for a year. Predictably, the young person (in this example,
a boy) blames everyone else for his predicament. After a time, he acknowledges
his own responsibility to care for himself and get over this mistake. Each
week, men bring more food and water. There is no conversation, and they
do not stay any longer than needed to drop off the supplies. At the end
of the year, the youth is collected and brought to a long house where the
community is gathered. One by one, the victim of the crime and any family
members talk about what this crime did to their lives. Other members of
the community may also speak to the youth. Finally, the young man has to
speak to the community to express his regret. When this is completed, he
is undressed and bathed, new ceremonial clothing is put on him, and he
is given a new name. The leader of the nation tells him that the community
will take him back because they need him, but he must understand his
to lead a good life from now on. The leader then blows goose down into
the air. When the down hits the ground, the young man is restored to a
new life. Afterwards, there is dancing and feasting to welcome him back.
In the memory of the Nisgaa' nation, this ceremony has never had to be
repeated for an offender.
Across centuries of Western culture, adults tried to rear respectful kids
by training them to be obedient. Even if children overtly obey elders,
it is quite another matter to honor them as mandated by the Ten Commandments.
Measured by a standard of respect, adults who demand obedience may be setting
very low expectations. Virtually any animal can be trained to be obedient
through systematic application of rewards or punishments. Only humans can
develop self-discipline and character, becoming autonomous beings who make
Courage Through Art
The cover art is the third in a series of four illustrations by Lakota
artist George Blue Bird. This art is now available as a 19" x 28" full-color
print. Surrounding the Circle of Courage(TM) are Native American children
representing the values of Belonging, Mastery, Independence, and Generosity.
The artist is a former youth at risk confined in prison. A legal defense
fund, which has been established to work for his release, is supported
by royalties from sales of this art. For more information on the Circle
of Courage(TM) print, contact: Circle of Courage, Inc., PO Box 57, Lennox,
SD; phone: 888/647-2532 or 605/647-2532.
[IMAGE PHOTOGRAPH] Captioned as: "Butterfly" by Allen B., age 14, a student
at Lawrence Hall Youth Services in Chicago. Used with permission.
Martin Brokenleg, EdD, is a professor of Native American studies at Augustana
College and dean of the Black Hills Seminars, a program of Reclaiming Youth
International, which serves professionals working with troubled youth.
This article is from a forthcoming book by the authors, Teaching Kids Respect.
Steve Van Bockern, EdD, is a professor of education at Augus
tana College, where he currently directs a research project on delinquency
in collaboration with Reclaiming Youth International and the Kellogg Foundation.
He has 25 years of experience as a teacher, principal, and developer of
programs for students at risk. Larry Brendtro, PhD, is president of Reclaiming
Youth International and co-editor of this journal. The training, research,
and service activities of this nonprofit organization are described at
their Web site, www.reclaiming.com. The authors can be contacted at: Reclaiming
Youth International, PO Box 57, Lennox, SD 57039.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.
Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
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